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Visualizing the Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface

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Visualizing the Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface

Visualizing the Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface

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There is little doubt that human activity has impacted the Earth, but to what extent?

As it turns out, nearly 95% of the Earth’s surface shows some form of human modification, with 85% bearing evidence of multiple forms of human impact.

This map by data scientist Hannah Ker outlines the extent of humanity’s modification on terrestrial land ecosystems.

Measuring the Human Impact

This map relies on the Global Human Modification of Terrestrial Systems data set, which tracks the physical extent of 13 anthropogenic stressors across five categories.

  1. Human settlement: population density, built‐up areas
  2. Agriculture: cropland, livestock
  3. Transportation: major roads, minor roads, two tracks, railroads
  4. Mining and energy production: mining, oil wells, wind turbines
  5. Electrical infrastructure: powerlines, nighttime lights

Researchers compiled all these stress factors and scaled their impact from 0 to 1. Then, in order to map the impacts spatially, the surface of land was organized into cells of 1 kilometer in length creating “edges” of varying impact.

These impacts are further organized by biomes—distinct biological communities that have formed in response to a shared physical climate.

Digging into the Data

Only 5% of the world’s lands are unaffected by humans, which amounts to nearly 7 million km² of the Earth’s land, and 44% (59 million km²) is categorized as low modification.

The remainder of land has a moderate to high degree of modification: with 34% categorized as moderate (46 million km²), 13% categorized as high (17 million km²), and 4% categorized as very high modification (5.5 million km²). This latter category is the most visible on the map, with portions of China, India, and Italy serving as focal points.

Below is a look at how Earth’s various biomes fare under this ranking system:

Visualizing the Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface

Out of the 14 biomes studied, the least modified biomes are tundra, boreal forests, deserts, temperate coniferous forests, and montane grasslands. Tropical dry broadleaf forests, temperate broadleaf forests, Mediterranean forests, mangroves, and temperate grasslands are the most modified biomes.

Dense human settlements, agricultural land uses, networks of infrastructure, and industrial activities dominate the more highly modified biomes. These lands are commonly subject to five or more human stressors simultaneously, threatening naturally-occurring ecosystem services.

What are Ecosystem Services?

An ecosystem service is any positive benefit that wildlife or ecosystems provide to people, and they can be sorted into four categories:

  1. Provisioning Services: This is the primary benefit of nature. Humans derive their food, water, and resources from nature.
  2. Regulating: Plants clean air and filter water, tree roots help to keep soil in place to prevent erosion, bees pollinate flowers, and bacterial colonies help to decompose waste.
  3. Cultural Services: Humans have long interacted with the “wild” and it in turn has influenced our social, intellectual, and cultural development. However, the built environment of a city or town separates man from nature and ancient patterns of life. Ecosystems have long served as inspiration for music, art, architecture, and recreation.
  4. Supporting Services: Ecosystems contain the fundamental natural processes that make life possible such as photosynthesis, nutrient cycling, soil creation, and the water cycle. These natural processes bring the Earth to life. Without these supporting services, provisional, regulating, and cultural services wouldn’t exist.

A Delicate Balance

With each encroachment upon habitat, the potential increases for humans to inadvertently upset the careful balance of ecosystem services that have nourished the processes of life on Earth.

As we become more aware of the human impact on the plant, we can make smarter decisions about how our society and economies function—ultimately ensuring that the same ecosystem services are there for future generations.

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Visualizing The World’s Failure to Halt Deforestation

Global deforestation in 2022 rose by 4%, reaching 6.6 million hectares.

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Map Showing How the World Failed to Reduce Deforestation in Certain Regions Around the Globe, Primarily in Tropical Regions.

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The following content is sponsored by Carbon Streaming

Visualizing The World’s Failure to Halt Deforestation

Global deforestation in 2022 rose by 4%, reaching 6.6 million hectares. This number is 21% higher than the 2022 target needed to end deforestation by 2030.

In this map, our sponsor Carbon Streaming examines the failure to reduce deforestation in certain regions around the globe, based on data from the Forest Declaration Assessment.  

Most Deforestation Occurs in Tropical Regions

In 2022, deforestation alone accounted for around 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions.  

Nearly 96% of global deforestation took place in tropical regions in 2022. The loss of tropical primary forests reached 4.1 million hectares, 33% higher than the needed trajectory to halt primary forest loss by the end of the decade:

RegionDeforestation 2022, in thousand hectares (kha)Target for 2022* (kha)Deviation from target
Tropical Africa820.0650.0+26%
Tropical Asia1,930.01,900.0 +1%
Tropical Latin America and the Caribbean3,530.02,620.0+35%
Europe1.31.0+26%
Non-tropical Africa0.9 1.2 -22%
Non-tropical Asia18.320.9 -13%
Non-tropical Latin America and the Caribbean118.972.3 +64%
North America126.8 134.6-6%
Global6,560.0 5,510.0 +21%

Note: Based on original analysis for the Forest Declaration Assessment report using data from Hansen et al. 2013, updated through 2022. Only tree cover loss that is deemed permanent (Curtis et al., 2018) or that occurs within humid tropical primary forests is considered here. * Annual targets based on linear trajectory from a 2018-20 average baseline to 2030 target of zero deforestation.

Non-tropical forests in Africa and Asia, as well as forests in North America, suffered deforestation below the target for 2022.

Meanwhile, public and private finance for forests remains far below estimated needs for meeting global goals to halt and reverse deforestation.

More Funding for Forest   

Funding for forests averages $2.2 billion annually, representing less than 1% of the estimated requirements for achieving global forest goals by 2050.

Carbon credits can help mobilize the private sector capital needed to protect and restore forests by providing funds where it is urgently needed. Companies can purchase carbon credits to support critical mitigation efforts outside of their value chains, including nature-based solutions that may not receive funding otherwise.

Carbon Streaming has a portfolio of high-integrity carbon credit projects spanning 12 countries, including projects protecting forests such as the Cerrado Biome project and Rimba Raya project.

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You can make an impact by purchasing carbon credits from Carbon Streaming.

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